The Pioneers of Izee

By Jack Southworth, Historian  – Grant County, Oregon

If you can tell me what Izee is, I’ll tell you its history. But I’m a little bit confused. Is it an area?  A School?  When you say ‘Izee’ perhaps you mean the Grange hall? Or maybe the Post Office?  Did you mean the IZ Ranch?  Or maybe you’re just talking about the people who make up the community that folks refer to as Izee?

Carlos Bonham

Carlos Bonham

Well, let’s back it up to how the IZ brand became a post office.

Carlos Bonham was a blacksmith and shoed mules for the army at Fort Harney. In 1876, while visiting his brother in Mt. Vernon he met Dolly Parker – the sister of his brother’s wife – and they were married on July 4th, 1876 with the condition that Carlos would let Dolly return to her parents home in Salem every two years for a two-month visit as long as her father was alive.

How Izee got its name

Carlos took out a 160-acre homestead in Izee in 1886 – a string of 40 acre parcels that went a mile up the South Fork from the mouth of Antelope Creek – and moved his family there in 1888 – still keeping up a business as a blacksmith while also operating his ranch.

Canyon City Post Office

Canyon City Post Office in 1906 with satchels ready to go to outlying areas such as Bear Valley & Izee

Carlos’ daughter, Della, recalled that when Carlos and his family moved out to Izee – then called Rosebud, at least it was the Rosebud Precinct in census polls that were taken – there was no Post Office. “Whenever people would go into Canyon City they would pick up everybody’s mail and bring it to our house and just drop it off in a big box. Everyone came and helped their selves. So Papa decided he would take the post office if he could get one. They sent in a name and it was rejected. Papa went to the post office in Canyon City to send a new name. O. P. Cresap was the postmaster at the time. The deputy clerk at the Canyon City post office was Minnie Swank and she said, ‘What is your brand, Mr. Bonham?’ Papa replied, ‘I Z’. Mrs. Swank asked, ‘Double ‘e’’. ‘I guess’ Papa replied. So they sent it in and it was accepted and Izee had a name. When we got the Post Office, Papa had a small six-foot by eight-foot room added on to the house. A Mr. Atherton built us some pigeon holes for both letter and paper holes. We got the post office in 1887 and there was one in Izee at various ranches until it was discontinued in 1954.”

Carlos’ wife, Dolly, was a mid-wife and helped bring into the world many of the babies born in Izee in the early 1900’s.

Ida and Blanche Brisbois

Ida and Blanche Brisbois

One lady who received Aunt Dolly’s assistance in childbirth was Ida Brisbois. Along with Harrisons, Brisbois’ were one of the original homesteaders in the Izee area coming into the area in the 1870’s.

Aunt Dolly and John Hyde’s wife, Mary, helped deliver Mary’s set of twin boys – Rex and Ray. What is interesting to me is that even though Carlos and Dolly only had daughters, the Bonham name lives on. Ida named her boys Rex Bonham Brisbois and Ray Hyde Brisbois in recognition of the ladies who had helped bring them into the world. Also at the time there was a family by the name of Walker who lived in Izee and one of their children had the middle name of Bonham. Today, there is a twenty-something young man by the name of Jordan Bonham Walker living in Seneca who, three generations later, still carries the Bonham name.

What attracted John Brisbois and Jim Harrison – and soon behind them, John Hyde – to the Upper South Fork of the John Day was year-round water and year-round grass. The variation in elevation and aspect combined with perennial streams meant that their livestock had feed during the coldest part of winter and good water during the driest time of summer.

The Sheep and Cattle Wars



The cause of the famous dispute between cattle and sheep ranchers was not local ranchers competing for the same grass and it wasn’t cattle against sheep. It was a matter of livestock owners in an area protecting what they considered their ‘range’ – though much of it wasn’t deeded – from outsiders. Many of the sheep operations were nomadic by nature with no permanent headquarters of any kind. They would begin the year at low elevations in the deserts to the south or along the Columbia River to the north and work their way higher and higher through the summer coming into forested areas around Izee for the summer.

Prior to the establishment of the Forest Service local ranchers had worked out loose agreements regarding where their livestock ranged. The nomadic sheepherders, always on the move, were either unaware of or ignored these agreements. It would have been a great frustration to a local cattleman to move his cattle to his summer range only to find it eaten out by a band of sheep that had gotten there ahead of him.

As a teenager, Perry Hyde participated in some ‘sheep shooting’ with an underground group known as the Izee Sheep Shooters, said to be the first in the state to try to prevent itinerant bands of sheep from traveling through and eating local grass. The sheep shooters worked at night trying to keep themselves anonymous by wearing bandanas or flour sack hoods over heads. One night, while shooting sheep with his pistol, Perry’s horse just dropped out from under him. Thinking that he’d hit a badger hole in the dark, Perry dusted himself off and climbed back on and went back to work shooting sheep. When he got home to his dad’s ranch on Poison Creek Perry unsaddled and tied his horse in the barn. The next morning he went back out to take care of his horse and discovered a bullet hole through the  bony part of the skull at the top of his horse’s head. Perry had shot his own horse!  Perry just combed the hair over the hole in his horse’s head and never told his dad that he’d almost killed his own horse.

Cattle Grazing

Izee Cattle Grazing on the Range

But the sheep weren’t a problem as much as a symptom of too many stock of all kinds all over eastern Oregon. Year-round grazing, too many cattle, too many sheep and too many horses took their toll on all the rangelands.

A couple of hard winters in the late 1800’s broke the backs and changed the ways of the year-round grazing operators. Della Keerins in her notes on the history of Izee wrote about a hard winter in the 1880’s. “John Hyde brought his cattle down the the Keerins ranch. He said, “Joe, can I put my cattle in for the night?” – he wanted to take them on down river the next day. Joe said to him, “We’ll go feed them, John. As long as there is any hay there is plenty.”  The next morning they went out to the corral and cattle and sheep were all piled up together dead as well as everyone else’s cattle and sheep through out the area.”

Keerin Bros. Ranch

Keerin Bros. Ranch

After that, the ranches that stayed in business started making more of an effort putting up hay.  Irrigable meadow land in Izee is limited – the capacity of the rangeland for spring, summer and fall grazing far outstrips the production of the meadows for winter feed.

To bring the two better in balance the ranchers started growing rye hay on the flatter areas at the mouth of draws where the soil was deeper and more fertile. Rye hay in combination with the meadows brought the ranches in Izee better in balance for meeting the year-round nutritional needs of their livestock.

If Izee ranchers were doing a better job of meeting the nutritional requirements of their cattle, they were still banging hard on the grasses of the rangeland by year-round use of rangeland by horses. The weed problems that Izee area ranchers battle today can easily be traced back to the year-round and over-use of rangelands from a century ago.

Della Bonham describes IZ Ranch life in the 1890’s

Papa had taken up a homestead on the South fork of the John Day River in 1886. But Mamma and we girls didn’t come over for a couple of years but only in summer. Papa had a Chinaman to care for the place while we were still living in Canyon City. A Mr. Lewis and his son, Willard, built one big room with a fireplace. The Lewis’ built two bedrooms, dining room and a front porch. It was a pretty rough looking structure but my father said our home was to live in not to look at. On August 9th, 1888,  my ninth birthday, we moved to Izee. My sister Ida was eleven and Lottie was seven. I have lived here in Izee ever since. We were all glad to come to the ranch.

Della Bonham

Looking down the South Fork from the IZ Ranch.
Bottom right: Della Mae Bonham, born 1879, who moved to Izee with her family in 1888, married Joseph Keerins in 1902 and lived most of her life in Izee.

What I can remember most was that the Chinaman had put out some raspberry bushes so we had raspberry short cake. We got to feed the chickens and gather the eggs.

Papa bought a colt from the Indians. She was a little filly and too young to follow the Indians’ horses. He gave $5 for her then he gave her to Ida. Her first colt was very roan and we named him Ned. Did we ever love those horses. We soon got a mama cat. She had kittens. We didn’t know what to think of that. We called her Tabby. We had a dog, Bogus, and a white dog, Prince. My sister, Lottie and I had to wait a lot for second table. We took the dogs on a rope and led them to the second corner up the river. Then we could drive them back. They took us a-flying back to the house. Lots of fun.

We had our own play house across the river in the shade of the willows. There we pulled a good-sized willow down and rode it sideways just like a horse. Up and down we would go. We had no trouble finding something to pass the time away when we didn’t have to work. Sister Ida played with us some but she would rather stay in the house with Mama.

Papa and Mamma kept and fed every one that came along for free till Joe Combs and Bill Hanley came along to buy some cattle. They stayed all night with us and next morning they asked, “Mr. Bonham, how much do we owe you.”  My father told them they didn’t owe him anything. The said, “Mr. Bonham, you can’t do this. Put out a shingle and make a chard on it.”  Papa thought about it for a while before he could make up his mind but he put the shingle out “Meals – 25 cents.”  We still had plenty of travelers stay with us.

Young Volney Officer liked to come over and watch Papa in the blacksmith shop. One day we called dinner. Papa said, “Come on Vol, let’s go eat.”  Volney replied, “No, Mr. Bonham, I don’t have the 25 cents.”  Papa said, “Oh, Vol, that isn’t for my friends or neighbors, just the travelers coming and going.”  So Volney came and ate with us.

Izee School

Original Izee School and students on property donated by John Hyde.

The community of Izee consisted of Papa’s blacksmith shop, the Post Office and we kept the travelers. A Mr. Campbell from the Mitchell country put in a saloon. He didn’t stay too long, the boys were too much for him. A brother and sister, Matt Mackey and Mrs. Potter, both quite old people, put in a store and were here close to two years. Then Lee Miller from Canyon City put in a store on a larger scale and kept most everything we would need. He was here several years and then moved to Paulina and had a store there. The folks in Izee built a dance hall just across Antelope Creek from the store. That was the limit of our city.

Our school was on down the river about a mile. The land the school house was on was donated by John Hyde. The new school is still on the same place. Our first teacher was my Aunt Susie Bonham. Her husband, Martin, took out a homestead and they stayed with us. Then a Mrs. Utley and then Willard Atherton. They all lived here. The first school burned down and then they built a larger one.

Laura Angell

Laura Angell ‘fishing’ in S. Fork during high water of spring runoff

Later years they built a school house up the river six or seven miles from out place on up the South Fork (at the mouth of Venator Creek)  so for a while there were two school districts. They soon had to give up the upper school district as there weren’t enough children to hold it.

Many of the photos shown here were taken by L. Angell. I always assumed that L stood for Larry or Lloyd. But I am pretty sure it stood for Laura, the gal in the lower right hand photo.

Angell’s owned the Izee ranch after the Bonhams and Laura took literally hundreds of pictures of the Izee area but darn few of the IZ ranch – nobody would pay for one of those, I suppose.